Before the Paddle to Seattle was included as part of Washington State’s centennial celebration in 1989, first nations canoe culture in the Pacific Northwest had all but disappeared.
In 1993, the first Tribal Canoe Journey held in BC took place at Bella Bella. Since then, various communities along the coast have hosted the event, with Paddle to Nisqually, completed from July 30 to August 6 in Washington, as the most recent. A canoe from Tla’amin Nation was one of hundreds participating.
According to Tla’amin citizen Cynthia Pallen, Tla’amin began attending the event in 2003, at Tulalip, Washington.
“People used to travel from community to community on a regular basis because they lived on the water; it was a way of life,” said Pallen, who was part of Tla’amin’s ground crew. “When this began it was a revitalization of the teachings of our people. When you go from place to place you’re going to honour that.”
For Pallen, this year’s journey had special significance because her granddaughter, Jordan Paul, 11, was one of the paddlers.
Pallen said Jordan’s family wanted her to experience the journey as part of her cultural teachings.
On the first day, according to Pallen, her granddaughter was a puller, which is the term used because of the pulling motion of the paddle. Jordan was on the water for 12 hours the first day.
“When we got in the water and started paddling it was really cool because there was a whole bunch of canoes around us, so it made it feel like a fantasy with the fog around us and people singing,” said Jordan.
Being on the water with her family was a memorable experience not many young people have the opportunity to learn from, including the importance of the paddle to her culture, said Jordan.
“You have to respect your paddles,” said Jordan. “We broke two on the journey. We need to learn to respect them because they’re made with strength; you need to pull the paddle gently and respectfully.”
According to Jordan’s father, Mario Paul, who had completed the journey before, it was a special experience being with his daughter.
“She did great. I was incredibly proud of her,” said Paul. “It was absolutely phenomenal to be able to do that with my daughter, and my dad as well, all paddling at the same time, and my mom being an integral part of the journey on the ground, facilitating everything that needed to be done as we were going between locations. It was an incredible family experience.”
At stops along the way, and when canoes arrived at Nisqually, canoe families followed official welcoming protocols, where permission was asked of the host community to come ashore.
Over the years, canoes from native American tribes, first nations peoples, Alaskan natives, Inuit, Maori, native Hawaiians and other indigenous people from around the world have attended.
Each brings their own traditional prayers, drumming, songs and dances and gifts for the host community.
“The drumming and singing is just overwhelming. It almost pierces right through you to hear those people sing; we longed for that also,” said Pallen. “When we first began, we hardly had any songs so it was really challenging for us. Throughout time we’ve been able to compose songs.”
Pallen said she remembers the first journey she attended and how it helped her become in touch with her heritage.
“It was out of respect to go and be in another territory and to have those people host all of these canoes,” she said. “To see all the children, adults and families together in one place celebrating culture is an amazing experience. It’s something I’ll always treasure.”